The World According to Baz Luhrmann

As a teenager, Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge was one of my favorite movies. When I heard that Luhrmann was adapting The Great Gatsby, I thought that it might be a good fit. He captured free spirit of Bohemian Paris so well, why not 1920s New York? But after watching The Great Gatsby last week, I was disappointed, and I want to figure out why.

The Great Gatsby 1

A film is a fantasy, to a greater or lesser degree depending on the genre. But even in the grittiest drama, we as viewers are aware that these are actors on sets saying words written by a screenwriter. We accept the facade as reality in order to experience the joy of storytelling. So to say that a film feels fake is a dubious criticism. All films are fake. People don’t break into song in real life, but I still love musicals. I’m sure that academics have written countless papers on this phenomenon, but my semi-educated guess is that people are willing to suspend disbelief for the pleasure of being entertained.

Despite all this, my main criticism of The Great Gatsby is that it feels fake. Too fake to ignore. The filters and digital effects used by the filmmakers have glossed up the images beyond any semblance of reality. The soundtrack, executive produced by Jay-Z, attempts to communicate Roaring ’20s excess through the modern-day excess of hip hop. It’s a technique that worked for Baz Luhrmann in Moulin Rouge, using modern music to replicate how jarring the Moulin Rouge atmosphere was to the people of 1899. However, combined with the over-glossed images of Gatsby, the anachronistic music just adds another layer of unreality.

The Great Gatsby 2

I did not approach this movie as a Great Gatsby hater. F. Scott Fitzgerald is a beautiful writer, and I admire the book. It just happens to have key moments that are challenging to put on screen. The best example is when Nick sees Gatsby holding out his arms toward the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. The gesture is awkward enough on the page, but when Robert Redford or Leonardo DiCaprio act out the moment, it’s too much. Another detail that’s tough to swallow is Gatsby’s habit of calling people “old sport.” If I were writing a Great Gatsby screenplay, I would throw in an “old sport” or two as a wink to novel purists, but certainly not with a slavish devotion to the source material. Rather unhelpfully, DiCaprio delivers his lines with an affected upper-crusty accent that makes the verbal tick even more grating.

The experience made me a little sad because I wondered if I would still enjoy Moulin Rouge. Had I outgrown Baz Luhrmann’s pyrotechnics altogether? I dusted off my DVD for the sake of science and was happy to be reminded why Moulin Rouge succeeds where Gatsby fails. For starters, being a musical probably gives it more leeway on the believability scale. While the images are stylized, it’s not to the extent that the actors cease to look human. The plot clicks along at the speed of Christian’s typewriter, particularly in the first half, and there are genuinely humorous moments.

Moulin Rouge

Most importantly, there’s Christian, a newcomer to the Bohemian scene, who serves as the viewer’s entry into this fantastical world. Ewan McGregor’s earnest performance can be credited for grounding the story. Tobey Maguire’s Nick Carraway should have served a similar purpose, as he does in the novel, but Nick was swallowed up by Daisy and Gatsby’s melodrama. So there you have it. Adapting a classic novel to the screen is not as easy as it looks.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “The World According to Baz Luhrmann

  1. Melinda

    You know, this is interesting b/c I just watched The Great Gatsby this month as well, though I didn’t watch it for Baz Luhrmann. (Or the novel or Fitzgerald for that matter–didn’t enjoy either of them.) I agree entirely about the music. Most soundtracks are meant to be a subconscious part of the film. Moulin Rouge managed modern day songs b/c they were altered to fit the musical style or at least Musical sense of the period. (Plays into your comment about suspension of disbelief. Think “Roxanne”–swelling orchestra vs Sting and guitar) Gatsby just didn’t. And like you said, it was jarring and simply just more unrealistic than stylistic.

    That being said, did I hate the movie? No surprisingly. I just don’t think it deserved the praise it got. Visually it’s still just as amazing as Moulin Rouge, but some events and phrases just did not translate well for a modern audience. (The “Old Sport” jokes on social media were so well-deserved. I wish I had taken count.)

    Things I think they did well:
    1) Daisy and Gatsby (casting and characterization). I found them much more sympathetic as characters than I did in the book. Maybe that’s just age and time since I actually read the book but I felt they had more depth. Or at least a glimpse of that depth. I’m sure someone with a love of the book could argue this with me.
    2) Minimizing Nick and Jordan’s romantic relationship. Ugh Toby Maguire.
    3) I really love me the Art Deco.
    4) The car scene and aftermath.

  2. Thanks for your comments, Melinda! It’s nice to feel like I’m in conversation with someone. Your great points make me feel like my posts should be longer, but I try to keep them under 600 words in hopes that people will actually read them. 🙂

    What seems to be a common complaint about this adaptation of Gatsby is that it displays ’20s excess without critiquing it, at least to the extent that Fitzgerald does in the novel. I didn’t mention this because I saw it in other reviews, but I think it relates to Gatsby and Daisy being sympathetic characters. If our goal is to be true to the novel, Gatsby should be a tragic character, destroyed by his belief in the American Dream, etc. But Daisy is ultimately a selfish character. As lovely as I find Carey Mulligan, I don’t think she portrays Daisy’s darker side.

    You also mentioned being glad that the movie minimized Nick and Jordan’s relationship. If I stick with my Moulin Rouge vs. Gatsby thesis, I have to view that omission as another missed opportunity to communicate the story’s real themes. Nick should be our on-screen counterpart as a newcomer to this crazy world of wealth, but his only real function in the film is to observe Daisy and Gatsby. When Nick is seduced by Jordan, he becomes a more active participant in their world.

    • Melinda

      I think that’s a fair criticism. Personally, I saw the film as not necessarily considering the 20’s as a whole, but rather done in a 1% vs. 99% theme. And maybe that was Luhrmann’s thought for how to translate a 90+ year old book to a modern audience. That of course brings up the question, if this isn’t a successful adaptation, what makes a successful book to movie adaptation? Do we remain entirely true to the novel, like the early Potter films, or is creative license expected and even encouraged so that changing audiences can still get the author’s original ideas? Should we view adapted films as retellings of the original tale, kind of like how myths and tall tales are retold over and over in slightly different ways but with the same result? How much can you properly relay from a 200 page book to a 2 hour movie? Things to be considered I suppose.

      If I recall correctly, I really disliked all the characters when I read the book, which is usually the reason why I dislike a book in the first place. Going with the idea of how to translate a for modern audiences, I still saw Gatsby as destroyed, but not by something we would term the American Dream nowadays. (Which in itself, are people today cynical of the American Dream?) Perhaps it would his belief in people or his idealization of Daisy. That’s where I thought they were more sympathetic. Gatsby had been in love with Daisy for so long that he put her on a pedestal, to standards that she could not possibly reach. Daisy I viewed from a more feminist perspective. I got the sense that she felt trapped–by her marriage, by Gatsby, by the very society she lived in–but had no clue how to overcome that feeling and very likely could never overcome it. So you have Gatsby as the naive man in love with an ideal and Daisy as the woman internally struggling to live up to that ideal and other societal expectations. Like I said before about time constraints, how much of these other relationships, like Jordan and Nick, could you actually show without getting away from the Gatsby-Daisy story that Luhrmann seemed to want to tell. When I look at it from this perspective, the Great Gatsby becomes a lot more like Moulin Rouge.

      Speaking of, I did rewatch M.R. this weekend after writing that first comment. I take back my initial comment about the modern songs being adjusted to fit our sense of Musicals from this time period. The songs don’t really change until after the first half hour or so. Maybe the change is what saved the movie in the long-run. But it occurred to me, are we willing to excuse the modern music in M.R. because it is a musical? That whole suspension of disbelief again? Would Gatsby have worked had it been a musical? (My thought is no.) Did the music fail in Gatsby bc of the movie’s typically white target audience? Would we have been more open to actual Jazz-age music in the film?

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